You’ve heard the saying, “Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing.” Right? While you may agree, Dr. Jack Llewellyn, sports psychologist, disagrees. He believes you should always play to win, but be able to define winning beyond the final score.
He should know. As a sports psychologist, Dr. Llewellyn helps professional athletes–including Atlanta Braves baseball players, tennis players, NFL players, and PGA golfers–deal with winning, losing, and recovering from the ups and downs of professional sports.
Needed: A Winning Attitude
“The key to success is to do what you’re capable of doing–and only you know what that is,” says Dr. Llewellyn.
According to Dr. Llewellyn, attaining athletic success depends on your physical capabilities or talents and on how you use your mental attitude and abilities to supplement that talent.
“Physical talent will take you only so far,” says Dr. Llewellyn. “If you put two equally talented professional athletes together, the mentally stronger of the two will win most every time. In professional sports, especially, everyone has reached about the same physical level. What separates them from each other is how they develop their mental capacity.”
How so, you ask? It seems that our central nervous system (CNS) calls all the shots.
“The CNS controls everything we do–our full range-of-motion, attention, and flexibility levels,” says Dr. Llewellyn.
In other words, if you’re not at your mental peak, you may hit a physical valley, a “low.”
That’s just what happened to one of Dr. Llewellyn’s athletes, John Smoltz, an Atlanta Braves pitcher. With a win/loss record of 2-11 at the All-Star break in 1991, Smoltz fell into a pitching slump. The Braves turned to Dr. Llewellyn for help. “What he was doing was focusing on pitching `not to lose’ instead of `pitching to win.’ I helped him make certain decisions–to decide on what he wanted to do and what he was capable of doing, to visualize what he wanted to do and to take a deep breath before he did it. We worked on using his mind to supplement his pitching mechanics,” says Dr. Llewellyn.
The Mind-Body Connection
What exactly does Dr. Llewellyn do as a sports psychologist? Llewellyn creates “performance enhancement programs” for his athletes. Through these programs, he teaches his clients to become aware of the connection between their minds and bodies. His techniques include focusing, visualization, and emotional control.
He defines them as follows:
* Focusing–to concentrate on specific things (e.g., pitching, hitting, or kicking) that an athlete wants to do.
* Visualization–to mentally see oneself performing “correctly” by forming an image or picture in one’s mind. Dr. Llewellyn often videotapes his athletes to help them form these pictures.
* Emotional Control–To seek greater emotional control, athletes need to learn how to deal with the stress of competition, how to gain insight from losses, and to focus on the process.
His results? By working with Dr. Llewellyn, Smoltz turned around his game and his world. After the All-Star break, Smoltz posted an impressive 12-2 record (14-12 for the season).
Dr. Llewellyn explains, “Some athletes reach a point where they try to make themselves do things instead of letting themselves play. They try to do something harder or impossible–and this sets them up for failure. If they become comfortable with their talent, they can have fun!”
To best do this, athletes must focus on the process instead of the end result, Dr. Llewellyn says. “For example, if you’re a pitcher, you need to focus on throwing strikes, and the game will take care of itself.”
Losing Can Be Helpful
Dr. Llewellyn asks athletes (especially younger ones) who tend to be obsessed with “winning over losing” to focus instead on the process of doing their best. “If you play at your best instead of playing to win, then you can walk away knowing that you did everything you could possibly do. Because playing sometimes means you’re going to lose.
“Kids who never learn to lose sometimes drop out of sports because they never learn to recover from adversity–not playing well, throwing bad pitches, making bad swings, or making mistakes that take away from their success,” says Dr. Llewellyn. “Losing is healthy. It helps you to deal with all kinds of losses on and off the field.”
Tips You Can Use
To increase your athletic performance, Dr. Llewellyn offers these suggestions:
* Be committed–Commit yourself to be better, to play better, and to accept the good with the bad.
* Practice what you play–Make mental practice a part of your physical practice and your game by using mental rehearsal and visualization. Visualize yourself performing at your best.
* Keep your focus–Focus when you need to–when it’s time to play. Try to anticipate events so you won’t lose concentration.
* Set goals and write them down–Saying you’ll do your best isn’t enough. You have to define what that is! Have a daily plan. “Before each game, set three goals and then write them down,” says Llewellyn. “Make them difficult, specific, and attainable!”
* Keep a performance journal–Keep track of how you’re performing (meeting your goals). This way, whether you win or lose, you’ve done the things that you’ve planned. If you don’t meet your goals, ask yourself “Why?” and “How can I do better next time?” Write those things down, too!
* Have fun–Athletes playing in the “zone” let themselves play and enjoy it! (And, they usually succeed, too!)